Tijara (Rajasthan): A small DJ truck followed by a series of SUVs winds its way along narrow tracks, throwing up clouds of dust as it approaches a village. A few children run towards the convoy, others climb on to their rooftops to watch.
The lyrics blare –
UP mein Yogi ne keeya kamaal; UP kee tarah Rajasthan ko bhee chamak banayenge Baba Balaknath Yogi; jinka chunav nishan, bhool na jaana, kamal ka phool…
(In UP Yogi has performed a miracle, Rajasthan will shine like UP thanks to Baba Balaknath Yogi, his election symbol, don’t forget, is the lotus flower…)
Mahant Baba Balaknath or ‘Rajasthan’s Yogi’, as he’s popularly known, is the BJP’s sitting MP from Alwar, now contesting the assembly elections from Tijara, in Alwar district.
The comparison with Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, is deliberately and ubiquitously evoked on stickers, posters and billboards across Tijara which show the two saffron-clad mahants from Nath mutths together. It is a clear signal of the BJP’s intent in the Mewat region of Rajasthan, where 7 of the 11 assembly constituencies have a sizeable population of Mev Muslims.
“Baba Balaknath came to file his nomination on a bulldozer and Yogi ji came all the way from Lucknow to Tijara to help him. Even the 10-year-olds in my village know what this is about,” says Imroz, a college student, before she’s rebuked by a village elder who adds, “She’s too outspoken. A thousand reprimands fall on her deaf ears but what she’s said is true. Even the women and children know why Yogi ji came from Lucknow and what he said.”
With the BJP under Modi ensuring no one leader in Rajasthan is projected as the party’s pick for a chief minister, the evocation of Adityanath is seen, at least in this constituency, both as a sign of polarising politics and the possibility of a leadership role for Balaknath. The mahant is seeking to build on the Hindutva politics that the BJP has practised in this region.
While covering the elections in 2018, I witnessed the BJP’s Gyan Dev Ahuja campaign in neighbouring Ramgarh. In every speech Ahuja referred to parts of his constituency as mini-Pakistan where Hindu girls were in danger of “love jihad”. His nephew is now contesting on the BJP ticket in the constituency.
Balaknath is an effective continuation of these politics, regularly hitting the headlines as a “firebrand Hindu leader”. As the Alwar MP, his communal statements include accusations against Chief Minister Gehlot for creating a “fatwa regime” which works only for Muslims. On November 14, he was in the news again when he likened his election battle to an India-Pakistan match. Earlier this year, in January, he was caught on camera issuing threats to the deputy superintendent of police of Behror, calling him a gunda or thug. He was quoted as saying, “Your children will regret that you were their father. Nine months of [Congress] rule is left…after that he will regret, he will regret his entire life.”
Brought into politics by his “guru” Mahant Chandnath, who was MP from Alwar and whom he succeeded as the head of the Baba Mastnath Mutth in Haryana, Balaknath also has the support of Baba Ramdev. As we follow him on his campaign trail, we find that at every meeting he is backed by a team of men from Mahendragarh in Haryana.
We stop at a village in Gwalda, inhabited largely by Mev Muslims and Meghwal Dalits. Hands folded, Balaknath prefers to walk past the women who have gathered outside the Mev homes, and heads straight to the house of a prominent member of the Meghwal Dalit community.
“Make sure your people come to vote for me,” he says, “we have to keep Tijara safe. Their people will cast the ballot in large numbers so decide, do you want a Khan as your leader or do you want a sadhu who will do sewa [service] for you?”
The reference is to the Congress candidate, Imran Khan, who owns a large construction company and was earlier the Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidate from Tijara. He switched to the Congress just days before the nomination leaving not just BSP workers angry, but also a section of the Congress cadre. Despite this anger, the party hopes Imran will draw a large section of the BSP’s Dalit base.
Balaknath’s clear identification as an outsider to the constituency, against a strong local Congress candidate, has also ensured he is having to fight for each vote. His image as a mahant, and the expected polarisation of votes are not proving to be enough to see him home. This has ensured the Dalits will play a critical part in the outcome.
The Dalits form the second largest community of voters in Tijara, after the Mev Muslims. In a close contest in 2018 the BSP’s Sanjeev Yadav defeated the Congress’ Aimaduudin Durru Mian with a thin margin of 3%. Which is why, Balaknath is ensuring that his campaign takes him to as many Dalit villages he can go to on any given day.
In Nimahedi village, as a group of women begin to complain about the lack of drinking water, Balaknath’s men nudge them to touch his feet and seek the “Baba’s blessings.” In his speech Balaknath asks them to “rise above jaati [caste] help protect sanatan dharm.”
This is something he is unable to do in his own campaign. Over the past 30 years the BJP has managed the paradoxical feat of appealing to an overarching Hindu identity while catering to the fragmentary demand of jaati politics. This remains true of the Balakanth campaign who has, in part, been picked to contest from Tijara because he is a Yadav, who form the third largest community here.
Each time Balaknath’s campaign convoy travels past the Yadav villages, the songs blaring from the DJ truck change. The lyrics now emphasise the caste identity of Balaknath’s family – his mother Urmila Devi and father Subhash Yadav.
The music makes me recall what Shahun, the founder of the Mewati Yuva Sangathan, had told me, “It’s Y + M in the rest of the country, here it becomes Y versus M. Yadavs elsewhere in the country speak of Samajwad, here they target Muslim.” The constituency has seen the battle between the Mevs and the Yadavs play ever since Independence, with the Mevs winning seven out of 12 assembly elections, and the Yadavs the other five.
Assured of Yadav backing, Balaknath knows the Dalits hold his electoral fate in their hand. We continue following the Balaknath convoy. At Bhamraka village, at the temple, addressing villagers, he evokes the Modi government, but makes sure he refers to Babasahab Ambedkar as well, “After Babasaheb Ambedkar, the only other law minister from your community that the country has seen is Arjun Singh Meghwal. The BJP gave him this position, it was Modi’s decision.”
He repeats this in village after village, ending his speeches with chants of “Jai Shri Ram,” “Bharat Ratan Baba Saheb Ambedkar Amar Rahe” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
The prominence given to Arjun Singh Meghwal in Rajasthan campaign ties in directly with the fact that Meghwals make up around 25 % of Rajasthan’s Dalit population and have growing sense of their assertion as a community. While much of Meghwal politics plays out in western Rajasthan, Jodhpur and Marwar, here in Tijara, the Meghwals form only a small part of the larger Dalit electorate and here, this is seen as an appeal to the larger Dalit community.
At the entrance of Mirchuki Ambedkar Nagar, we speak to some of the Dalit families soon after Balaknath’s convoy leaves. Ram Rati says she will vote for “Modi”. When I ask her why, she says it’s because he has given them mobile phones. Her son, Deshraj, a daily wage carpenter, corrects her brusquely, telling her the phones came from Gehlot ji. He says people here will vote according to their preferences, but most will choose the Congress.
Sitting in their family home, Deshraj’s father Daya Chand and his two brothers bear out his words. They favour the Congress, and are unimpressed with Balaknath and his team. They admit that “Hindu-Hindu” is working in a section of their community, but feel that even though he is working hard, his campaign is losing traction.
They show us a video they have just received on their mobile phones, showing Sikhs in a neighbouring village shout anti-Balaknath slogans during his election sabha. The Sikhs remain angry at Sandeep Dayama, a prominent BJP Gujjar leader who in a hate speech said, “A large number of gurdwaras have come up recently in Tijara…so it is our religious responsibility to uproot these open sores from here.”
Dayama was asked to leave the party and later retracted his statement and apologised with a clarification which was as hateful – he said he meant “masjids and mazhars,” not gurdwaras.
Daya Chand and his brothers also speak of a new factor that is generating interest. Udmiram, a Gujjar sarpanch has joined Chandra Shekhar Aazad’s Azad Samaj Party or ASPA, which is in a coalition with Hanuman Beniwal Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. In a cluster of Gujjar homes in Milakpur, people speak with some excitement at the prospects of a man from their community challenging the Yadav domination of the region.
What about Mahant ji? “We don’t need to vote for Baba Balaknath to prove we are Hindus. If his supporters talk about him being a Yadav, why can’t we support our Gujjar neta.”
When we meet Bane Singh of the BJP at Chandrlok City, a hotel complex in Tijara town, he dismisses Udhami as inconsequential, “We will bring him into the fold, we will get Purshottom Saini released from jail so all the Sainis will vote for us. Sandeep Dayama will return to campaign for Baba and even Congress leaders like Deshpal will join us.”
Aiming to impress, he adds, “I am a busy man but agreed to meet you as I want every sister of mine to know the truth of this region. Tijara will lead the way in making a Hindu Rashtra.”
The reference to Purshottam Saini ties back to a recent incident that served to magnify the politics of polarisation Balaknath represents. Saini was arrested, along with three others after the killing of 20-year-old Wakeel Mohammad. The Muslim youth was abducted and beaten to death after a clash over allegations that he’d been made about the Bajrang Dal. Saini is a local advocate aligned with the BJP. The Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva groups have attacked Gehlot for appeasing Muslim sentiments by wrongly jailing him. Bane Singh says the Saini community are upset and will vote for the BJP, especially when they get Purshottam released shortly before the elections. When asked how they will do this, he smiles, shaking his head, “Dekhtey raho [keep watching].”
As if on cue, the Congress leader he had referred to, Deshpal arrives at the hotel. Over a cup of tea he tells us how the Congress banished him when he protested against the candidature of Imran Khan. A newspaper carried an article with the headline that “Hindu leaders were exiting the Congress.” Deshpal says that’s not his quote but then goes on to ask why the Congress gives tickets only to Mevs.
The BJP’s flirtation with men like Deshpal is a good indication of how close this fight is turning out to be. Both Adityanath and Mallikarjun Kharge are due to address rallies in the constituency.
Shahun says many in the Mev community are heartened by the very fact that a headline-grabbing, BJP mahant, backed by the biggest BJP leaders is having to fight hard to win Tijara.
Imran Ayyub, who works in Bhidwadi, adds, “Mewat has seen so much in the past few years, lynchings, hate speeches and hate crimes but we’re still anxious about what lies ahead if Balaknath wins.” From his one-room office, he points to the view outside, a thick cover of smog that hangs low over a pot-holed road, “Bhiwadi is part of the NCR region but we’re the neglected step-children of that area. Here, we just get to hear about thee great work the Congress has done elsewhere in the state.”
Development issues, he adds, are forced to take backseat for him and his friends, as Muslims it is about life and liberty above all for them. It is only a Congress government in the state that has ensured the polarisation does not reach the level witnessed in the rest of Mewat lying across the border in Haryana. Balaknath as an MP under a Congress government is better than Balaknath as an MLA in a BJP government, “We’ve seen what happened on the other side of the Kala Pahad.”
Kala Pahad is a ridge of the Aravallis which separates Rajasthan from Haryana dividing Mewat in two. He does not have to spell out how the Mevs have fared in Haryana over the last few years.